- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — Whether with their friends at parties, at school or in solitude on the Internet, millions of American teenagers are taking up an ever-more-accessible national pastime — gambling.

Much of the action is small-time — underage purchases of lottery tickets, playing cards or dice games for spare change. But experts say the long-term stakes are high because most who start gambling young are likeliest to develop addiction problems.

“This is the first generation of kids growing up when gambling is legal and available virtually nationwide,” said George Meldrum of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems. “Casinos, racetracks — they take it for granted.”

Nationwide statistics on youth gambling are scarce, but regional surveys suggest that more than 30 percent of all high school students gamble periodically.

Middle-schoolers are following suit, as evidenced by the uncovering of a sports-betting ring at a Glenview, Ill., middle school last year. In Delaware, Mr. Meldrum’s agency recently conducted one of the largest surveys of student gambling; nearly a third of 6,753 participating eighth-graders said they had gambled last year.

Those who gambled were much more likely than other students to smoke, drink alcohol, use illegal drugs and commit petty crimes, the survey found.

Such trends are the focus of research at the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems, based at McGill University in Montreal. The center’s co-director, Jeffrey Dervensky, said studies indicate that compulsive gambling problems afflict up to 8 percent of young gamblers, compared with up to 3 percent of adult gamblers.

Adult gambling addicts may seek help when they realize their job or marriage is imperiled, but young people are less likely to do so, Mr. Dervensky said.

“These kids still live at home and nobody’s dragging them in, saying, ‘If you don’t go for help, I’m leaving you,’” Mr. Dervensky said. “These kids steal money, usually from their family. If you get caught, your parents are not going to turn you in.”

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said more than 80 percent of American adults gamble at least occasionally — a possible reason for what he sees as a worrisome tolerance of youth gambling.

“We’ve had a number of parents say, ‘Thank God, it’s just gambling,’” Mr. Whyte said.

While most casinos try to keep underage gamblers off their premises, enforcement is a challenge. Ed Looney of the New Jersey Council on Problem Gambling said Atlantic City’s casinos evict about 34,000 young people annually.

Mr. Looney and his colleagues visit dozens of New Jersey schools each year, discussing about compulsive gambling and learning about the latest trends. A current fad at inner-city schools is see-low, a dice game played for money and attracting even preteens, he said.

Mr. Looney said betting on sports is epidemic at colleges and estimated that 40 percent of New Jersey adolescents play the lottery, which is meant to be off-limits to anyone under 18.

Others complain that enforcement in many states is lax and that not enough public money is spent to help young gambling addicts.

“You see lottery ticket vending machines which say, ‘Don’t use if you’re not 18’ but who’s patrolling them?” Mr. Whyte said.

The recent survey in Delaware found that 9 percent of eighth-graders had gambled on Internet sites offering electronic forms of slot machines and card games. Many experts believe this type of gambling will become increasingly tempting to young people.

“The Internet provides the holy trinity of risk factors — immediate access, anonymity and, with use of a credit card, the ability to gamble with money you don’t really have,” Mr. Whyte said.

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